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Off the rails in Ireland

Any socialist, even a pessimistic one, alive in the 1880’s might have reasonably expected that socialism would be achieved by the advent of the new millennium. This expectation obviously hasn’t come to pass and this book, albeit in an indirect fashion, throws some light on some of the reasons why not.

Off the Rails, The story of ILDA (Currach Press) is the story of a trade unionist, Brendan Ogle and details his perspective on a rail strike in Ireland in the summer of the year 2000. Brendan Ogle comes from Dundalk, a town just south of the border and often unfairly caricatured in the tabloid press as an ‘El Paso’ of terrorism. He left school early, completed an apprenticeship and then in common with many young Irish workers in the 1980’s was forced to travel to Britain for employment. In time-honoured fashion, he initially worked on building sites, but tiring of the poor working conditions there, switched over to the railways and found a position with British Rail. Brendan returned to Ireland in the early 1990’s with the improving economic prospects and became a train driver with the state-owned Rail Company, Irish Rail.

At the time two unions organised amongst the drivers, SIPTU and the NBRU, and both were officially recognised by the company. SIPTU is the largest general union in Ireland while the NBRU had its origin as a breakaway union from SIPTU and concentrates solely on certain grades of transport workers. Brendan Ogle joined SIPTU but together with some other train drivers in the union had a disagreement about how the union handled some negotiations. This initially led to the formation of a specific pressure group within SIPTU to press the interests of train drivers but as differences exacerbated, the group became a small breakaway union, ILDA (Irish Locomotive Drivers Association) led by Ogle.

Most of the book deals with the legal and union struggles that ILDA endured in a vain attempt to gain official recognition from the company management, the other unions and ultimately the Irish Government (the sole shareholder in Irish Rail). The basic fact was that ILDA became the biggest union amongst the 300 or so train drivers with 48% of the grade; the balance being split amongst the other two unions. However management refused to recognise them and there was hostility from the hierarchy of SIPTU and the NBRU. A series of lockouts, one-day rail strikes and court actions ensued over the summer with the legal prosecution of their case being just as important as the industrial action. The issue of rail safety also entered the dispute, in addition to union recognition complicating the issue.

Ultimately as Brendan Ogle admitted in a recent radio interview, their action was unsuccessful and after 10 weeks the strikers returned to work, from economic necessity, without achieving their objectives. Brendan Ogle is still a train driver with the company and currently ILDA is a sub-group within the larger ATGWU union which has a negotiating licence with Irish Rail. However problems persist, ILDA now represents only 30% of the drivers and more industrial action is looming.

The wider background to the dispute (not really discussed in the book) can be understood by appreciating the role of mainstream trade unions in Ireland over the past 15 years or so. In 1987 the first of the ‘National Agreements’ were signed by the Government, business representatives, trade unions, farmers and the voluntary sector. The main players in these deals are obviously the first three and they have been updated rounds every four years or so. Broadly, the unions guarantee to accept controlled and predicted wage increases in return for Government action on reducing employment, tax reform and other social issues. The moderate pay increases resulting from this process was one of the reasons for the very large investments by American capitalism in Ireland and a key fact behind the ‘Celtic Tiger’ in the late 1990’s. However certain ‘radical’ trade unionists remained suspicious of these deals, in effect claiming that workers were being short-changed and should demand higher increases outside any collective agreement. This was a background factor in the dissatisfaction of Brendan Ogle and his colleagues with SIPTU.

What is the socialist view of this story? Workers can certainly gain tactical advantages by being members of strong trade unions but whether they’re ‘in the system’ or outside it won't make substantial difference in the long run. From the book, it is clear that Brendan Ogle regards all the different workers in the railways, train drivers, clerks, engineers, porters, etc. as having divergent interests that require separate representation. The setting up a specific union for a particular occupation where the maximum total national workforce is only 300 inevitably weakens the broad labour movement, due to the attendant inter-union strife. The book also reflects the disappointing tendency of ‘progressive’ social movements (unions, human rights organizations, etc.) to increasingly fight their battles by the hiring of expensive barristers and participation in arcane arguments through the capitalist court system rather than by democratic agitation and mobilisation. Fundamentally it stems from a lack of understanding of our basic political position as workers. This is particularly evident in a section of the book where Brendan Ogle reveals he voted for Fianna Fail, the largest and most pro-business party in the state in the 1997 general election but has recently joined Ireland’s reformist Labour Party. The reason he joined Labour? Because it’s not Fianna Fail!

In some ways I have to say that I admire Brendan Ogle. Somebody who works the unsociable hours of train drivers, is raising a young family and still makes the effort to write a book while carrying out union duties is deserving of some respect. If over the years, more workers with his energy and undoubted abilities understood the case for socialism then perhaps we all would be further down the track.

Kevin Cronin